Washington State head coach Mike Leach was forced to go back to the game tape and re-evaluate his team from top to bottom. While he’s said that the team is “closer than it thinks it is” to competing, it hasn’t stopped him from shuffling offensive lineman, trying out new defensive backs, and giving backup QB Connor Halliday a few reps with the first team. Nobody is safe from being replaced because the Cougars face a very important must-win game against a suddenly dangerous FCS foe in Eastern Washington University.
Separated by just an hour of two-lane highway, these Palouse rivals haven’t played since 1908, and the Cougars hold an all-time advantage in the series 2-0. But the Eagles of Eastern are fresh off a 20-3 drubbing of WAC foe Idaho last week in the Kibbie Dome and sit as the ninth ranked team in the FCS. Quarterback Kyle Padron, a transfer from SMU, threw for 260 yards with a touchdown and wide receiver Brandon Kaufman caught five passes for 148 yards.
Most importantly in their upset of the Vandals, the Eagles were able to control the clock with a solid running game and a stout defense. Quincy Forte and Jordan Talley combined for 35 carries, 129 yards and a touchdown. The Eagle defense stiffened when they had to, holding Idaho to just 2-for-15 on third down conversions, allowing just 10 first downs in the game and forcing a pair of turnovers.
The Cougars have some cause for concern after their flat performance in Provo against BYU. WSU allowed 426 yards of offense, including 303 through the air and failed to force a single turnover while allowing 24 first downs. They couldn’t get off the field on defense, allowing four separate drives of 10 plays or more and forced just one three and out the entire night (though it still resulted in a field goal following a turnover).
After such a poor performance, Leach knows that his team can’t be looking past EWU just because they’re a smaller school, saying that he “can’t fathom how that should even be possible” for the Cougars. Even if his team wasn’t coming off a historically bad offensive night, Leach would be emphasizing how dangerous this Eagles club is. The head coach describes Eastern as a high-tempo team that does a lot of good things and plays with an expectation to win. He says of the 2010 FCS National Champion Eagles: “They never have been average.”
The key for WSU to turn things around, according to their head coach, is for the team to start playing like they practice. Leach loves the energy and enthusiasm he sees day in and day out on the practice field, but admits that his team suffered from a bit of “performance anxiety” when it came to their big debut. Leach will need to find a way to get his team to overcome their stage fright in a hurry, or else.
While the expectations in Pullman aren’t sky high after Bill Doba salted the earth of their recruiting trail and Paul Wulff turned in the worst tenure in WSU history, there was still definite anticipation for Leach’s Air Raid offense. This was a team that many predicted to be a perfect fit for the unorthodox coach’s style and thought that Leach would be the most successful of the four new head coaches in the Pac 12.
After week one, however, Leach is the only one of the four without a win for his new school. And if that drought stretches another week with a loss to a lower-tier program like EWU? Well, then the Palouse Pirate is going to find some stormy seas ahead as the Cougars head coach.
You can follow me on Twitter @Teeblerone and Rant Sports @RantSports